Bryan Hughes

The Contentious Relationship Between the LGBTQ+ community and Tech

“Queers hate techies,” the slogan proudly proclaimed in a window in San Francisco. Being a queer techie, I was immediately conflicted.

The tech industry provides a safe haven for many queer folks, myself included. It offers stable employement to us more willingly than other industries. These benefits don’t extend to all queer folks though, and these benefits are often revoked as soon as we step out of line. Queer folks are a model minority in an industry who’s products often negatively impact our community.

This talk will dive into these complications and how we can improve the tech industry to make it a truly welcoming place for queer folks.

Portrait photo of Bryan Hughes


BRYAN: Hey, thanks, everyone. So, yeah. My name's Bryan Hughes, find me online in all the places. This is a talk I have been thinking about for a long time. Actually, first came up with like the original kernel of an idea for this talk at this very conference two years ago.

So, I think it's fitting that I'm able to actually give it here at JSConf EU. Because this is a really special conference. I think we've all felt that. You know, it's great technical content, of course.

Some of the leading technical content. But really, we're a community, more than that. And so, like, as you can probably guess, especially if you have read my Twitter bio, I'm bisexual, polyamorous, and you can read it there. Some things that aren't in my bio. I was born in Texas in the United States which is one of the most conservative parts of the country.

I grew up there in the '80s and '90s. A little older than I look. Things were a little bit different back then.

I'm going to talk about queerness and tech and how these things intersect in all kinds of different ways. The truth is it's complicated. There's no binary tech is good, tech is bad or any of that. It's just all over the map.

I really want to dig into what these things are, really. How tech helps, how tech hurts and how tech can be better. I'm just one person.

We talk about the queer community a lot. But it's not just one community. Not just one type of person in it. The queer community is a federation, really.

There are lots and lots of different communities with a lot of different people and a lot of different experiences. Of course, disclaimer, I speak for myself.

I did reach out to a number of queer folks that I know, friends of friends, things like that, to try to get a lot of different perspectives. You'll see quotes from other folks. Hopefully not just speaking for myself. Before we get into it, this talk comes with content warnings as I'm sure you can imagine.

So, if any of these parts of the talk are difficult or uncomfortable, take care of yourself. Feel free to step outside, anything like that. I want to start by setting the stage a little bit. Go back in time a little bit.

Talk about one of the fathers of computer science, Alan Turing. Made contributions to computer science as well as art official intelligence.

The renaissance in tech, artificial intelligence, the big new thing. Alan Turing was talking about it in the first part of the 20th century. And Alan Turing was also gay. And he was persecuted for it.

It. I think in a way it's fitting that we start by talking about tech and queer employees given in the way that Alan Turing was the first queer tech employee. At least that we know of. When we talk about being a queer employee, tech is very complicated, you know? I'm queer and I'm a tech employee. I think a lot of folks in this audience here are.

And so, it's really complicated. Like the first thing  I want to talk about one of the best things is that tech offers us stable employment. And as queer folks, this is really important because a lot of queer folks are just not financially stable.

Regardless of the family we come from, so many were, you know, kicked out of their homes when they were young. So, even if there was wealth in the family, that often didn't translate to the queer kids themselves. Having financial stability is important. And in tech, compared to other professions that pay about the same and offer the stability, tech tends to be one of the most accepting. At least in that strata of professions.

As a queer tech worker, I have a job that is intellectually challenging and offers economic stability. I do my best to pay it forward and pass that money along to people who need it.

One of the first issues that we tend to run into, and this is kind of a meta one, is corporate pride is rainbow capitalism. All right. Throughout I think about three different definitions to use to break this down a little bit. First, the concept of pride in the queer community. That's really, really important to us.

Because for centuries and millennia, we were told that who we are is something to be ashamed of. It's not. And it's taken a lot of work for us to become proud of who we are. And so, pride is very, very important us to.

And we're starting to see a lot of companies expressing queer pride in various different ways. So, this corporate pride is kind of  it's a new thing, of course. But we really look at it, though, it's what we call rainbow capitalism. And so, rainbow capitalism is whenever companies, institutions, whoever, engages with the queer community. Not to help the queer community.

But in order to further their own interests. Usually to sell more products, make more money. And what we end up seeing is that corporate pride end up just being another reflection and lens of rainbow capitalism.

The tech industry is engaging in a queerspecific version of diversity theater by sponsoring events like the pride parade. They market to sell more products, and most are not doing anything to make the life better for queer people. Queer ERGs, employee resource groups, should be run by queer employees. However, it's also important that you value the work people are putting into this.

I was the head of the queer employee resource group for a while. And that work was seen as completely extracurricular and I missed out on a promotion as a result. See, companies want to take the work they do in order to further their own interests and they don't actually give back. They don't support us in that. They only take it from us.

And our other intersections are compounded. You know, we talk about social justice. We talk a lot about intersectionality. And that absolutely applies to queerness as well.

And one of the things that I think is important to note about this is, you know, we tend to think about diversity, inclusivity as like different axes. This is not necessarily wrong, but they are not independent.

And this is something we have to remember. When people have more than one marginalization they're dealing, this is not an additive, it's a multiplicative one. They inform each other and makes things more complicated. When my disability became ongoing, it was hard to tell if I was put on small projects because of my disability, gender, or actual job performance.

I'm definitely more marginalized for my Judaism and ADHD, but that's only because I have been working in queerfriendly cities. I'm marginalized for both my queerness and my race. Queer rights isn't an equal playing field. Race always had something to do with it.

Our pain is ignored and dismissed. Just after the Pulse nightclub shootings, I mentioned to a coworker that I was going hold a moment of silence at an upcoming all hands. My coworker said, I don't think tech companies should take a stance on that kind of thing. I like the idea of being neutral. What the fuck? I didn't say anything because I didn't feel safe to speak up to this person that thinks companies shouldn't condemn gun violence against queer people of color.

Tech is never neutral. And the only way you can think that tech is neutral is if you love in a place of extreme privilege. Tech is a part of this world. It always has been.

[ Applause ]

And it shape this is world in a way that no industry does in this day and age. And, you know, actually, I should say something else on this. I actually have my own story with Pulse as well. I had been working at Microsoft for three, four months. I was working on a product team before I got into my current role now.

And Pulse nightclub shooting happened on a weekend. And I think every queer person remembers that weekend pretty clearly. At least if you were connected to the queer community at that time.

I was working on a remote team, something I was grateful for in retrospect. And we had a standup Monday morning. I'm devastated. Every queer person I know and talked to was a complete and utter wreck.

I hop on the call, a virtual call, thankfully no video. I'm barely able to speak, and all the people on the team, all cis straight men, they were asking about weekends, laughing and joking as if nothing had happened.

And like I'm struggling so much already. And that made me feel so much more alone in that moment. Because it was a reminder that, you know, most people aren't queer. Most people don't have to deal with that.

And most people don't care. So, what can tech employers do?

First, let's talk about hiring. And this is just a few things. Like we could spend an entire talk on this alone. I'll just give you a couple of things.

First of all is ignore social media. Like, if you're higher, just don't even look at a person's social media account. Because the truth is, if we're going to talk about our daily lives, that means talking about some things that people find controversial.

If we're not going to talk about our daily lives like privileged, straight, cis white folks do, we get punished in ways they don't or we have to hide it, which is effectively going back in the closet. If we talk about other marginalizations on top of it, it's even worse. On my bio on Twitter, I mention that I'm bi and poly. I try to be out about that. But you know what with? If a bi queer woman, especially of color said the same thing, that would probably disqualify them from being hired, but not me.

The other thing is to understand variances in employment history. This is especially true for trans folks. Because the truth of the matter is queer folks in general have a tougher time finding employment. There are more issues we have to deal with.

And the more marginalized intersections it is, the more difficult. People are in bad situations at work and are discriminated and have to leave. Especially the more marginalized followings tend to hop jobs.

It's not the fault of the queer folks, but it's the companies. And in hiring, the queer person is punished all the time. We need to stop looking at that. And talk about HR once in the company.

Implicit bias training. This is kind of an obvious one.

And there are a lot of problems with current implicit bias trainings. But this is still important. We all have biases. This is the nature of the human condition.

Every single person has some biases. We can't understand everyone's viewpoint in the world.

We didn't simultaneously grow up in every single country to simultaneously being born to dozens of different types of parents. We cannot understand everyone's position innately. We don't have the experiences. And the best way to get through that is through education. And also, we need to improve implicit bias training.

And also, we need to take sexual harassment claims seriously. This is especially true for clear women. Because this is an issue in the industry for all women. But again, intersectionality. This comes into play.

Queer women face even more issues. There was  I remember a study came out a while ago that showed bi women actually face more discrimination than lesbian or straight women as it turns out. There's a whole complicated host of reasons for that. But it's true.

And so, taking these claims seriously benefits queer people especially. And people of color and other intersections as well. Inclusion. You know, genderneutral language and bedrooms.

We have genderneutral bedrooms here at the conference. It's actually part of the venue. They didn't do that last minute switch that a lot of conferences did.

You can do it at a concert venue, you can do it at work. And the same thing with language. Don't use he, him in documentation language. Depending on the language, this is a little bit different.

Some languages it's easier to do genderneutral pronouns than others. Regardless, think about what they're talking about in the language and the culture and figure out how to support them with language.

Preferred names and pronouns. This is important in companies and comes up in a lot of places we don't think about. For legal reasons, most companies need your legal name. A trans person, their legal name is often not their real name. We need to understand that and propagate that through a system.

If you have HR systems to log in, show their preferred name there, not the legal name. In their email, corporate email account, show your preferred name and not your legal name and so on and so forth. Create queeronly spaces.

I bet a lot of us use Slack at work. Make sure in the Slacks there's a queeronly space. Same for other marginalizations. We need a space to talk about ourselves where we're not constantly having to do one on one education.

And let queer people speak and listen. Stop speaking and listen. Stop thinking you know what's best for queer people at your company.

Let's back out and talk about tech in the broader queer community. This is one of the biggest benefits of tech and the most transformation I have seen. Tech lets us escape our isolation. This is a big difference, when I was kid to when I was in college. When I was a kid, there was no Internet.

Even when I was in high school, it wasn't really there. But now we can actually find community online. And this is deeply powerful.

Tech makes it easier to find and meet community. Grinder, et cetera, make finding likeminded people or people with the same sexuality is a lot easier than flagging my friend Dorothy. There's a reason, read up on it. Tech makes it easier to find porn which helps with sexuality discovery.

This is important. A lot of people don't think about it.

But when we grow up in a society when we are supposed to have a certain orientation, certain sexual desires. We have to dispel with that. We have to figure something else. And interestingly enough, porn is a really good way to do that. And porn is tied into tech.

So, we need to  this is so useful in so many ways. Queer folks spend most of our lives in some form of social isolation due to the hostility and violation of the cis hetero normative society we are forced to live in. Having tech for a space to be ourselves and meet people like us matters.

Tech has a lot of isolated people, allowing them to find thousands or millions of others just like themselves. Queer folks of all types have found a large, receptive community to help them feel normalized and legitimate. The trans rights movements has advanced due to the isolated people finding a multitude of peers going through the same process.

But tech asserts its biases on the world. I think the biggest harm is training AI systems that incorporate existing bias and then treating those systems as Oracles and always correct. Also, unlike with human interactions where you can negotiate, if a tech solution isn't coded to do something, there's no way to do it. If you're a queer, nonbinary or trans person signing up for a service and they have only a male/female check button, you can't talk to the website and have that button appear. It's not there.

You don't do it. It's driven by powerful cis men, and the tech is baked with the world they create. And put out into the world via the Internet. It's a small portion of the straight world who is setting that culture.

Tech is also explicit in gentrification. Now, gentrification is a complicated topic and there's not just one single cause. But tech absolutely does play a role in it. Societally some of the safest spaces for queer communities are in big cities like New York and San Francisco and, yes, here in Berlin.

However, tech is hypergentrifying those areas, making it impossible for queer folks to live. When queer folks can't live in places that are safe for them, they have to live in places that are not safe for them.

I live in San Francisco. My local community pretty much got destroyed by gentrification, along with everything else that's good and beautiful. I live in San Francisco. And I have to agree.

Social media tech refuses to fix hate and bullying. Online spaces have been increasingly hostile towards marginalized groups speaking up about their expressions, and that's fucking shitty. I have seen friends and friends of friends stand up against white supremacists, tech doesn't ban the Nazis, they ban the queer people standing up for themselves. I've seen this many times.

The tech industry is profiting from social media platforms that enable harassment of queer and trans people as well as spreading fascist ideologies. The tech industry has the power and resources to quarantine harassment and hate speech. We do it with Spam in email. It's just harassment and hate speech don't affect the white men in charge of the industry.

And the harm of viralness is intersectional. I think we've all heard various stories in the media about someone does something, says something, whatever. It goes viral. And then their lives are ruined.

This is compounded by intersectionality. There's a lot of stories I could tell. There's actually a very specific story I want to tell, though.

About two months ago a trans black woman in Dallas, my hometown. I grew up in Dallas. Her name was Malaysia Booker, assaulted in a parking lot and someone recorded it and it went viral. After the attack, she had this to say.

This time I can stand before you when I was attacked. Whereas in other scenarios, we are at a memorial.

So, what can tech companies do? The first is safety. And start by banning the Nazis. Get rid of real name policies. Like Facebook still has a real name policy.

And I use Facebook, these are not people's real names, they're legal names. And I've seen this abused in many ways.

Trans people are banned from Twitter because they dare to use their real name. And speak out against antiqueer legislation. We're seeing more and more antiqueer legislation in the United States, here in Europe and around the world. And there is precedence for this, by the way.

A year or two ago in the United States when some of the really bad antiimmigration policy was first being force the through, Microsoft released statements condemning that. We should do that with antiqueer legislation too. And, again, ban the fucking Nazis. It's 2019. Why are we having this conversation again?

And respect. Stop using us as props to promote yourselves. We are not things in your game. And put your money where your mouth is.

Companies will spend tens of thousands of dollars on one float in one pride parade. Yes, they actually cost that much.

But you know what? They don't give a single dollar to any nonprofit that actually helps queer people. They only want to look good. They don't give a shit about us. So, like, where will the future take us?

And, you know, this is something I'm torn on myself. I don't know where we're going to end up in all of this. Some days I'm pessimistic. Some days I'm hopeful.

And today I'm going choose to be hopeful, though. I want to read you some excerpts from a speech from some time ago by Harvey Milk who was a famous queer activist.

And I think he had a lot of really good things to say. Like every other group, we must be judged by our leaders and by those who are themselves gay. Those who are visible. For invisible, we remain in limbo.

A myth. A person with no parents, no brothers, no sisters. No friends who are straight. No important positions in employment. The anger and the frustrations that some of us feel is because we are misunderstood.

And friends can't feel the anger and frustration. They can sense it in us. But they can't feel it.

Because a friend has never gone through what is known as coming out. I will never forget what it was like coming out and having nobody to look up toward. I remember the lack of hope. Our friends can't fulfill it.

I can't forget the looks on faces of people who've lost hope. Be they gay, be they seniors.

Be they black folks looking for an almostimpossible job. Be they Latinos trying to explain their problems and aspirations in tongue that's foreign to them. I use the word "I" because I'm proud. I stand here tonight in front of my gay sisters, brothers and friends because I'm proud of you.

In San Francisco, three days before gay pride day, a person was killed just because he was gay. And that night I walked among the sad and the frustrated at city hall in San Francisco. And later that night as they lit candles on Castro Street and stood in silence. Reaching out for some symbolic thing to give them hope. These were strong people.

These faces I knew from the shop, the streets, meetings. And people who I never saw before, but I knew. They were strong. But even they needed hope.

And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias, and the Richmond, Minnesotas, who are coming out and hearing the story on television, the only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow. Hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great.

Hope that all will be all right. So, without hope, not only gays, but blacks, Asians, seniors, the handicapped, the uses. The uses will give up.

If there's a message I have to give, is that I found one overriding thing about my personal election, if a gay person can be elected, it's a green light. And you and you and you  you have to give 'em hope.

Thank you.

[ Applause ]